Movin’ On Up: Home wins move WKU to second in C-USA standings

Freshman forward Dee Givens (4) steals the ball during the first half of the WKU vs. University of Alabama, Birmingham game on Saturday, Feb. 27 at Diddle Arena. Ebony Cox/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Thirteen different teams came to Diddle Arena to play the WKU women’s basketball team in the 2015-16 season, and 12 of those teams travelled home with a new loss on their resumes.

This past week, the Lady Toppers collected two more home victories over Middle Tennessee and UAB, moving them into second place in the conference standings behind the only team to leave Diddle Arena with a win this season: University of Texas at El Paso.

“We always talk about if you’re going to have a chance to win championships you got to win your games at home,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “We want Diddle to be a hard place for people to come in and play, and we have an amazing atmosphere and great fans and I’m really proud of that.”

WKU’s defense helped them get off to a 17-2 start to the season that included a 14-game stretch in which no opponent scored more than 69 points.

That same defensive intensity returned in last week’s two victories. Middle Tennessee scored just 51 points Thursday and UAB could only muster 55 points on Saturday.

“I’m so proud of our players and our defense,” Clark-Heard said after the 62-51 win Thursday. “To hold [MTSU] to 5 points in the fourth quarter and to turn them over 21 times says a lot about our team.”

Both MTSU and WKU shot below 50 percent from the field and combined to make just three shots from beyond the arc.

Things got off to a difficult start for sophomore guard Tashia Brown in the first half. The guard picked up her third personal foul late in the second quarter and was held scoreless in the first half.

Redshirt junior guard Kendall Noble scored 12 of her 23 points in the first half and helped keep MTSU from growing its lead as WKU headed into halftime down by just two points.

“They went out there, and they competed and continued to be aggressive [and] play hard, and they didn’t let [my fouls] dictate the game,” Brown said.

Luckily for Clark-Heard and her team, Brown didn’t let her foul trouble dictate her game either. She went on a tear in the third quarter, scoring nine quick points and helping WKU take a four-point lead into the final 10 minutes of play.

Brown finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. No other Lady Topper scored double digits during the game, but several players combined in a collective effort to ensure the victory.

“This was a huge team win across the board,” Clark-Heard said. “This was probably the first time that I felt like we followed [the scouting report] throughout the whole game.”

MTSU turned the ball over 21 times leading to 17 WKU points. The Lady Toppers turned the ball over just eight times and held the Blue Raiders to just five fourth-quarter points.

The biggest problem for the Lady Toppers from the MTSU backcourt was point guard Ty Petty. Petty shredded WKU for 18 points through three quarters, and then Lady Topper freshman guard Sidnee Bopp checked into the game.

Bopp logged 11 minutes and was stuck on Petty for the entire fourth quarter. Petty’s fourth quarter stat line included zero points on 0-3 shooting and one turnover.

Asked if Bopp was an “annoying” defender, Clark-Heard agreed. “Kendall Noble says that everyday. [Bopp] guards Kendall in practice,” Clark-Heard said. “I’m just really proud of [Bopp] because she’s really stepped up a lot in these last four games.”

Efforts like Bopp’s helped the Lady Toppers overcome a 10-rebound deficit and 40 percent shooting percentage to attain the win.

“It’s a great feeling. I thought last time [at MTSU], I didn’t play very well at all,” Noble said. “I was trying to be aggressive and get my teammates involved, and I think everybody stepped up and played well tonight.”

On Saturday, UAB arrived in Diddle Arena seeking revenge from an earlier 63-49 loss to WKU. It was senior day for forward Jalynn McClain, the only graduating player on the roster. She would finish her last game in Diddle Arena with four points, six rebounds and two steals in 29 minutes of action.

UAB jumped on the Lady Toppers in the beginning of the game, shooting 62 percent from the floor and claiming a 20-11 lead after the first quarter. WKU was just 4-14 from the floor in the quarter.

“I just think that we weren’t really focused when we came out there, and then we all huddled together and coach told us to focus on defense,” freshman guard Kayla Smith said. “Once we have that energy on defense, it also produces on offense.”

The offense picked up quickly from there, and thanks to a 3-point shooting barrage from sophomore guard Ivy Brown, WKU took its first lead of the game into halftime by a score of 29-27. Ivy Brown finished the game with 11 points.

“I think different people stepped up,” Noble said. “We started off very slow, and good thing Ivy was hitting threes or we probably would’ve gotten blown out. We stepped up in the second half for a good team win.”

The defensive intensity was key for the Lady Toppers in the second half. UAB had no answers to crack Clark-Heard’s schemes.

WKU forced 23 turnovers, and UAB’s shooting percentage cooled off as the Blazers shot 48 percent for the game.

WKU has two road games remaining as it heads into the final week of the season. The first contest will be against Southern Mississippi on Thursday, followed by a matchup with Louisiana Tech on Saturday.